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Who Saved Jews? An Exchange

To the Editors:

RE: The letters debating the Danish King Christian the Tenth and his alleged wearing of the yellow star which the Jewish people were required to wear in all of Europe occupied by Germany 1939–1945—except in Denmark [NYR, March 29, 1990 and September 27, 1990].

Rather than debating who did the most or the least to resist the Germans in 1939–45 and to try to rewrite that aspect of history I should like to say a couple of things.

As a Dane growing up in Denmark I did not hear Danes boast about what was done for the Jewish people, who were and are after all Danes of the Jewish faith. Just as other acts of resistance were and are not boasted about among Danes in Denmark. The acts simply had to be done. It is only now, because the Second World War is becoming history and the participants in these events are growing old, there is a need to pass on the experiences as warnings to the generations born after 1945. The legends are, therefore, growing in importance as is the need for knowing the truth. Recently, for example, an eighty-eight-year-old Danish resistance fighter has published the segment of his memoirs which covers World War II. This is incidentally unusual as many of these people have died early due to their experiences during the war.

In the debate which István Deák has started, the most important point in regards to the Danish people during the German occupation is that neighbor did not en masse turn on neighbor.

In all the darkness people felt during those years, humanity did not die. There would be a warning knock on a door. There would be a skipper who was willing to sail even though it could and did cost him his life. There was a doctor who hid people in his hospital, there was a bishop who prayed for all the Danish people regardless of their faith, there were the countless people who had a bed made up in their house and who did not ask who would occupy it, to mention a small but not insignificant help. Last not least there was a king who stayed with his people and stood up to the Nazis whenever possible.

We can all have hindsight but for all the revisionists it cannot be denied that history has taught us that appeasement does not stop a determined aggressor. The comparison of the preparedness of the Polish and Danish armies in 1939 is indeed a futile one. No European army was ready but the German. The atrocities cannot be diminished by pointing fingers nor should we detract from the humanitarian acts by pointing out that more, bigger, or equally great acts were done elsewhere.

We can point out that these acts were done, and any life saved from the clutches of the Nazis was and is much more important than the how and where. But, it can not be denied that King Christian the 10th riding his horse every day through the occupied Cophenhagen, with or without the yellow star, was a tremendous boost to people’s morale. Dane-bashing can’t and won’t diminish that.

Inger M. Olsen
Longview, Washington

To the Editors:

The further debate on “Legends of King Christian: Another Exchange” and his distinguished role in saving Danish Jews during the German occupation brings back István Deák, whose review, “The Incomprehensible Holocaust” [NYR, September 28, 1989] continues to agitate it.

Mr. Deak once again surveys those events which were instrumental in saving the Danish Jews and in which King Christian played the pivotal role. He goes on to say, “Danish behavior toward the Jews was admirable but the price to be paid for the rescue was economic and political collaboration.” He documents other collaborationist regimes such as the monarchist/ fascist powers in Italy, Bulgaria, and Romania who also managed to save most of their Jews, but fails to even mention the Vichy collaborationist government, which succeeded throughout the German occupation of France in thwarting Nazi attempts to enlist the Vichy police in rounding up French Jews for transport to the killing centers.

Indeed, a far higher percentage of both Italian and Romanian Jews were transported, and/or murdered on Romanian soil by local violence than was the case in France. There was no local violence against Jews in France.

Raul Hilberg, in his Destruction of the European Jews (Quadrangle Books, page 419), says, “In Holland the Germans had deported more than three-fourths of all the Jews; in France the percentages were exactly reversed.” The reference encompasses Jewish refugees from all over Europe, as well as French Jews. Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, two historians who can hardly be accused of sympathy to the Vichy regime in their book Vichy France and the Jews, while attempting to produce an indictment of France as almost universally anti-Semitic, put the figure for all Jews caught on French soil and transported at 75,000. Of the total, “close to one-third were French Jews.”

These figures in a prewar population of 300,000 French Jews translate to only something more than 8 percent of French Jews who did not escape transportation. Almost all of those 8 percent were represented by old Jews and children who were trapped in Paris at the beginning of the occupation. Only in Denmark, Finland (which had only three hundred Jews), and Bulgaria was a higher percentage of Jews saved than in France, even if one considers that two-thirds of the 75,000 Jews deported from French soil were foreign Jews.

It is a further irony of history that had there been no “anti-Semitic” Vichy collaborationist regime to deal with the Nazis, and the Germans had occupied all of France, there would likely have been few French Jews surviving to return to their homeland postwar. As it is, France is the only country in all continental Europe with a larger Jewish population (three times as large) than it had before the war.

Shale Dworan
New York City

István Deák replies:

I may well be the first person in this country to be charged with Dane-bashing. I plead not guilty, for in the several exchanges that have followed from my article on “The Incomprehensible Holocaust,” I have only attempted to set the record straight.1 I believe I gave due credit to the many Danish saviors of Jews (many, as opposed to the few in most other countries), but I also pointed out the cost incurred by the anti-Nazi cause as a result of Denmark’s failure to resist the German invasion in 1940, and the Danish government’s collaboration with the Third Reich in the early years of the war. Because of the American public’s yearning for instances of collective national innocence in a very guilty Europe, the myth of the heroic Danish nation was created, thereby obscuring individual and group acts of genuine humanity.

The Danes themselves demonstrated that collective innocence could be nothing but a myth when they mounted what was perhaps the most thoroughgoing of all postwar domestic purges for Nazi crimes. To their lasting credit, the Danes themselves engaged in furious “Dane-bashing.” But since Inger Olsen has brought up the example of “the [Danish] skipper who was willing to sail even though it could and did cost him his life,” I cannot resist a bit of skepticism in referring her to the Israeli Holocaust historian Leni Yahil’s The Rescue of Danish Jewry. In that book Yahil explains how, during the initial stages of the rescue operation, in 1943, only well-to-do Danish Jews could afford the short voyage to Sweden. Private boatmen set their own price and the costs were prohibitive, ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 kroner per person ($160 to $1,600 in the currency of that period). Afterward, when organized Danish rescue groups stepped in to coordinate the flight and to collect funds, the average price per person fell to 2,000 and then 500 kroner. The total cost of the rescue operation was about 12 million kroner, of which the Jews paid about 7 million kroner, including a 750,000 kroner loan which the Jewish community had to repay after the war.2 The rescue operation took place with the connivance of the local German naval command. Consequently, there were no casualities either among the Jews or among the boatmen.

Shale Dworan is right that I should have listed France among the collaborationist countries in which a significant number of Jews escaped the death camps. She is also correct in stating that Romanian fascists, and to an even greater extent the Romanian army and police, murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews without any German prompting. No mob violence against Jews took place in wartime France; but then neither did it take place in Germany after the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938, and even that event had been organized from above with little popular participation. Nor were there pogroms in most other European countries during the war (least of all in Fascist Italy, which Shale Dworan also mentions for no apparent reason). Spontaneous anti-Jewish violence occurred only in Austria, during the Anschluss in 1938, and in Romania, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. The Holocaust was a finetuned bureaucratic affair, in which, aside from the German authorities, a good number of other European military, police, and civilian institutions, including those of France, took part.

As Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton demonstrate, French anti-Semitism was a very real force, yet it was subsumed under the general heading of xenophobia. The latter led to the deportation to Nazi Germany of thousands of Spanish republican refugees and most non-French Jews.3 True, when it came to stateless refugees, the French behaved no worse than most other Europeans. Until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, the Budapest government protected the lives of nearly 900,000 Hungarian Jews, yet it thought nothing of expelling some 15,000 other Jews of “dubious nationality” to Galicia in 1941, where their unscheduled arrival caused the infuriated German SS to kill nearly all of them. The Romanian army and police massacred almost all the Jews in occupied Bessarabia and Transnistria, yet the Romanian government refused to surrender the Jewish citizens of the “old country” to the Germans. The Bulgarian authorities sent the Jews of occupied Thrace to Auschwitz, but they would not give up a single Bulgarian Jew.

As early as 1940, Marshal Pétain’s government in unoccupied France pestered the Germans to accept the non-French Jews it wanted to deport. It also protested indignantly against the German predilection for dumping unwanted German Jews onto French territory. Because the Germans did not evince the slightest interest in the Jews of France at that time, the Vichy government added the recent Jewish arrivals to other stateless refugees already in French concentration camps. There, thousands died of cold, malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Things were so bad in the camps at Gurs and Le Vernet that a group of German Jewish refugee war veterans appealed—in vain, of course—to the Nazi German officials for help against the French: “Here we are Germans first, before anything else, and forevermore Germans.”

Before the large-scale deportation of Western European Jews to the Nazi death camps in the summer of 1942, the French camps were not necessarily better than the German ones. The Hungarian Jewish writer Arthur Koestler was arrested by the police of the Third Republic in October 1939 and sent to Le Vernet as an undesirable alien. There he shared quarters with White Russians, German and East European Jews, Italian communists, French criminals, and thousands of others, all housed in huts built of wooden planks and covered with a sort of waterproofed paper. Each hut housed two hundred men and was thirty yards long and five yards wide. There were no windows, no stove during the winter of 1939, no lighting, and no blankets. Food was utterly inadequate, yet the undernourished men had to work on road building.

Two years later Koestler wrote in Scum of the Earth:

Four times a day there were roll-calls, which lasted from half an hour to an hour each. For most of this time we had to stand immobile in the frost. The slightest offense was reprimanded by a stroke of the fist or the leather crop of the Mobile Guards [French gendarmes]…. These, roughly, were…the material conditions in the camp of Le Vernet. It has to be remembered, however, that it was notoriously the worst in France. But it must also be mentioned that as regards food, accommodation and hygiene, Vernet was even below the level of Nazi concentration camps. We had some thirty men in Section C who had previously been interned in various German camps,…and they were experts on these matters. I myself could confirm that the food in Franco’s prison had been far more substantial and nourishing.4

Koestler was interned even though he held a valid passport of what was then neutral Hungary; he was the accredited reporter of a British newspaper, and he even owned a permit to live in France. (As one who, in 1948, circulated between the Paris Préfecture de Police for a permis de séjour and the Ministère de Travail for a permis de travail—neither obtainable without the other—I can appreciate both Koestler’s privileged position and his misfortune. Historical objectivity requires me to state that, with the help of the International Refugee Organization and two packs of Camel cigarettes, I eventually obtained a police permit to stay in France.)

Ironically, the reason for Koestler’s arrest by the republican police was his onetime membership in the German Communist party. The French government, which had just gone to war against Nazi Germany, used the excuse of the recently concluded Hitler-Stalin Pact to crack down on the leftist foreigners in France.

French contempt for les étrangers, especially of the East European sale métèque variety, was matched by the British refusal to admit Jewish refugees from France, on the grounds that to do so would enflame anti-Semitism in Great Britain. This decision was matched by that of the United States in June 1941 to reduce sharply the numbers of American visas issued to Jewish and other refugees in France, and by Switzerland’s handing over all illegal entrants to the Nazis.

In wartime Europe, only fascist Italy, fascist Spain, and Salazar’s authoritarian Portugal offered protection to all Jews rather than simply to their own nationals. In these countries, at least, stateless refugees could feel relatively safe.

During the wretched interwar years, Europeans—and Americans as well—had tended to regard refugees either as well-to-do speculators living high on the hog from illegal gain or as a subproletariat ready to snatch jobs from native workers. Besides, refugees were expected to undermine national cultural values and to besmirch the purity of the native race.

The Vichy regime permitted a couple of Jewish officers to serve in the minuscule national army that the 1940 armistice agreement with Germany had granted to France, and it generally protected the lives and property of its deserving Jewish citizens. But the government took Draconian measures against alien and poor Jews. In France, as nearly everywhere else, wealth, education, and native roots were the best guarantors of survival. The Nazis wished to kill all the Jews; the other Europeans would have been quite satisfied if only the poor, the aliens, and the radical leftists had disappeared from their midst.

It was not always easy, however, to distinguish between different categories of Jews; the newly naturalized, for instance, formed a category that some, but not all, French authorities wanted to “denaturalize.” Moreover, quite a few French politicians were fanatical racists who wished to spare none, least of all the rich and influential Jews protected by the conservatives in the Vichy regime. Hence the not inconsiderable number of French Jews whom Vichy ended up handing over to the Holocaust machine.

For diverse reasons, such as the insufficient number of German policemen in France (a mere three thousand), the rivalry among the German authorities charged with carrying out the Final Solution in Western Europe, and the scarcity of rolling stock, mass deportations from France did not begin until the summer of 1942. Then, at last, a growing number of French people, especially Catholic church leaders, raised their voices against the inhumanity of shipping entire trainloads of children to an unknown destination in the east. And beginning in 1943, when things turned bad for the Nazis, there was active French sabotage of the Final Solution program. Unlike their counterparts in Germany, the Protestants of France, such as the magnificent inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, were among the most heroic saviors. Toward the end, that is, in 1944, deportations were carried out exclusively by the German SS and the French fascist Milice.

After the war, the defenders of Pétain, Laval, and their associates argued that French political and economic collaboration with Germany had saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. Had France obeyed the wishes of the exiled De Gaulle from the start, they argued, all the Jews would have been killed. Similar arguments were advanced by the defenders of every single collaborationist regime. They all had a point, and if absolute justice would ever have been possible then such people as Regent Horthy of Hungary, Premier Laval of France, Monsignor Tiso of Slovakia, Marshal Antonescu of Romania, and the Duce should have been both indicted for genocide and decorated for saving lives. As it happened, Mussolini, Tiso, Antonescu, and Laval were executed, while Pétain was sent to prison for life, and Horthy was never tried.

What applies to these statesmen, applies to their peoples as well. The collaborationist Hungarians were punished after the war in a cruel treaty that repeated the injustices of the 1919 Paris peace treaty. The Romanians, on the other hand, were rewarded with the return of the territories they had lost to Hungary during World War II. The stubbornly anti-Nazi Poles were shifted westward against their will, but the largely pro-Nazi Austrians were formally declared the first victims of Nazi aggression. Slovakia was allowed (or forced) to rejoin the Czech lands in a reborn and “victorious” Czechoslovak republic, and Croatia, which had a particularly murderous pro-Nazi regime, was allowed (or forced) to rejoin triumphant Yugoslavia. Finally, formerly collaborationist France regained Alsace-Lorraine and all its colonies. It was also permitted to join the three Great Powers and to sit in justice over the war criminals at Nuremberg.

Marrus and Paxton argue that more Jews would have survived in France had Vichy refused to collaborate with the Third Reich, and had it not introduced a series of anti-Jewish measures. Other people, Shale Dworan included, maintain the opposite. Statistical data seem to demonstrate the validity of the collaborationist thesis, particularly if one considers the experience of non-collaborationist Poland and the Netherlands where so few Jews survived. I, too, have always held that the goal of fighting the Germans by any and all means did not always coincide with the fundamental Jewish interest in survival. In occupied France, for instance, the murder of a single German soldier was customarily punished by the execution of one hundred “East European Jewish Communist” hostages. Yet I cannot help feeling unhappy with my own argument.

The refugee question agitated the French public both before and during the war even more than did the Jewish question. Still, no one has convincingly demonstrated that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, take away jobs or weaken the economy. In fact, the contrary seems to be true. Nor can I believe that refugees undermine national values, whatever those may be, or that they pollute the putative purity of the native race. Today, when a new wave of East European refugees threatens to engulf Western Europe, and when millions knock on the door of the United States, it is good to remember that the exclusionist policy of the 1920s and 1930s led nowhere. It did not prevent the Great Depression; it did not strengthen the backbone of a single European country in opposing Nazi aggression; it only demoralized the public, and it radicalized politics. On the other hand, a strong case can be argued that their intermittent hospitality to refugees made such countries as France, Canada, and the United States great.

  1. 1

    See “The Incomprehensible Holocaust,” The New York Review, September 28, 1989, and particularly the exchanges on December 21, 1989, March 29, 1990, and September 27, 1990.

  2. 2

    Leni Yahil, The Rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a Democracy (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969).

  3. 3

    Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (Basic Books, 1981).

  4. 4

    Arthur Koestler, Scum of the Earth (London: Gollancz, 1941; London: Hutchinson, 1968), pp. 106–107.

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